Health and Wellbeing Lifestyle

Don your (swim) cap! A dive into Oxford’s wild swimming scene

Jumping into the dubious-looking waters of the Cherwell or the Thames is no new phenomenon for Oxford students. In fact, it is almost considered a rite of passage that after hours of trashing or punting, you take the plunge.  But what is it about this long-standing tradition that makes it so appealing? 

The answer, it turns out, dates back to at least the 17th century, with the popularity of wild swimming areas on the banks of the river Cherwell. Located in what now forms part of University Parks, Parson’s Pleasure was a popular wild swimming spot most notably among male Dons of the university. The catch? Nude swimming spots. There are numerous wince-worthy accounts of Oxford students in the 1980s innocently punting along the river, only to be met with the sight of their tutor sunning themselves on the banks, leaving very little to the imagination.  I can only imagine the awkward atmosphere in the tutorial the next day. Closed in the early 90s, it continues to go down in Oxford myth and legend and probably leaves many undergrads feeling rather relieved that they don’t have to fear seeing more of their tutors than they bargained for! It wasn’t just men, however, who enjoyed dipping a toe in the Cherwell. Dame’s Delight, located on the opposite side of the river, also offered a wild swimming spot for women and children and with much less flesh on show…

Whilst taking the plunge was clearly all the rage fifty years ago, wild swimming has soared in popularity since lockdown began in March 2020. By this, I mean swimmers for whom running into the river involves a swimming hat and goggles instead of jumping in by Christchurch Boat House with subfusc and a bottle of Zesty White. And it turns out, if you really go looking for it, there are plenty of opportunities around Oxford to don your (swim) cap.  

Perhaps the most famous is Port meadow. Located to the north-west of Oxford city centre and known to any students who have considered dabbling with open water swimming, this haven of countryside in the middle of Oxford is simply the ideal spot to take a swim on a sunny day.  Alternatively, if you head further north upstream you will find Wolvercote Bathing Place. Although its heyday was arguably thirty years ago, it is still a recognised wild swimming spot with a grassy green bank – the perfect spot to picnic with friends when we’re not in a pandemic.  If you’ve brought your bike to Oxford, it’s definitely one to head for! 

This trend isn’t, like many things, just an Oxford fad. Wild swimming became so popular during lockdown that the River Wharfe in Ilkley made a big splash by gaining official bathing status; it’s the only one in the UK and will consequently be tested to ensure that the water is safe and clean for swimmers. If you look hard enough, you will find that most places can accommodate wild swimming. In Wales? Try the salty water of the Heritage Coast or the vivid depths of Blue Lagoon. Scotland? Be enchanted by the fairy pools at the foot of the dramatic Cuillen Mountain range or Soldier’s Leap in Killiecrankie. Whether lagoon or lake, sea or river, the UK does have some truly stunning scenery in which you can quite literally immerse yourself.  

But why? Why do we put ourselves through the startling cold-water shock, the hyperventilation and brain freeze?  Whilst some may simply be cold water thrill junkies, there are in fact proven health benefits to this teeth-chattering activity: better sleep, better circulation, increased happiness and an increased immune system, just to name a few. With all of these benefits, mental and physical, it’s a wonder we’re not all jumping into the Thames during term time. Could it be that wild swimming is in fact the answer to all your problems?

So, the next time you consider jumping into the Thames at the end of the night, know that you are immersing yourself into an integral part of Oxford life. What with the numerous health benefits, deep-rooted history and beautiful scenery wild swimming can offer, it is the perfect new hobby to jump into, although you may want to dip a toe in first!

Holly is a keen actress, skier and musical theatre enthusiast. When she's not studying French and German, she can usually be found playing her guitar or wild swimming in Port Meadow.